Who would be in SA Hall of Fame?
South Africa has produced dozens of outstanding boxers whose achievements should be recognised in a Hall of Fame.
But about 130 years after the first “official” fights took place in South Africa, the country still has no Boxing Hall of Fame. And SA boxing fans can only debate and speculate about the fighters who would have been inducted by now.
There has been only one attempt to get such an institution off the ground. That was about 30 years ago when the SA Boxing Board of Control announced the establishment of a Hall of Fame at the Chris Lessing Boxing Museum at the board’s offices in Johannesburg.
However, the idea never took off and was soon forgotten; as was the museum.
This seems strange, because SA boxing has an outstanding history. The first organised bouts in the country were, most historians believe, bare-knuckle fights held according to London Prize Ring Rules in the early 1880s.
There is evidence, however, that bare-knuckle public fights took place in King William’s Town in the 1860s. These were little more than rough-and-tumble scraps between soldiers at what was then the Cape Colony frontier.
Newspapers editors disapproved of bare-knuckle fights, so details of these contests are rather sketchy.
Only after the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and of gold at the Witwatersrand did boxing, or prize-fighting as it was known, became popular.
In July 1889 the famous battle between Wolf Bendoff from England and James Robertson Couper resulted in boxing gaining a more or less permanent place in SA sport.
Even then there was opposition to boxing. The sport was illegal in the Transvaal from just before the Anglo-Boer War until the passing of an act of parliament in 1923.
Even though prize-fighting was illegal, boxing thrived in Johannesburg from 1889 to 1896.
Couper, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 12 1855, had his first fight in Kimberley in 1882 when he faced Trooper Bloomfield, whom he knocked out in the first round. The fight was contested under London Prize Ring Rules.
After retiring from the ring, Couper became a trainer and boxing writer. He is justly regarded as the father of SA boxing and should have been honoured long ago in a national Boxing Hall of Fame.
Such an establishment could be divided into three categories. The pioneers group would be for boxers who were active before the First World War, the old-timers group for those who boxed between the two world wars, and the modern group for boxers who were active after the World War II.
Boxers should be voted into the Hall of Fame only after being inactive for at least five years and only three should be placed in each category every year.
Among those who should be strong contenders for a place in South Africa’s Hall of Fame, are:
Pioneer group – James Robertson Couper, Arthur Douglas, Jack Lalor, Bill Heffernan, Barney Malone, Pat Clancy, Billy Allen, Ned Starkey, Watty Austin, Charlie Price and Jack Ellmore.
Oldtimers group – Don McCorkindale, Eddie Maguire, Ronnie Dumar, Reggie Hull, Willie Smith, Eddie Pierce and Ben Foord.
Modern group – Johnny Ralph, Gerrie Coetzee, Corrie Sanders, Mike Holt, Pierre Fourie, Gert “Hottie” van Heerden, Elijah Makhathini, Johnny “Smiler” van Rensburg, Willie Toweel, Willie Ludick, Harold Volbrecht, Laurie Stevens, Gerald Dreyer, Andries Steyn, Arnold Taylor, Vic Toweel, Peter Mathebula, Norman “Pangaman” Sekgapane, Nkosana “Happyboy” Mgxaji, Thulani “Sugarboy” Malinga, Enoch “Schoolboy” Nhlapo, Elijah Mokone, Anthony Morodi, Brian Mitchell, Dingaan Thobela, Vuyani Bungu, Jake Tuli, Jacob “Baby Jake” Matlala and Levi Madi.
Couper, Malone and Douglas are undisputable contenders as they dominated their era. McCorkindale and Foord held their own against some of the top heavyweights in the 1930s.
Foord won the British and Empire heavyweight title in England in 1936 when he stopped Jack Petersen in three rounds. McCorkindale was ranked at No 5 in the heavyweight division by The Ring magazine, who published the only recognised rankings at the time.
Smith has a claim to being the first SA “world” champion. After his victory over Teddy Baldock in October 1927, the British Boxing Board recognised him as world bantamweight champion. There were no other claimants at the time.
Stevens, whose career was interrupted by the World War II, had his last fight in July 1946. He beat Jack “Kid” Berg for the British Empire lightweight title in Johannesburg in 1936.
Vic Toweel and Brian Mitchell are the standouts in the modern group. Others who achieved world recognition were Mathebula, Malinga, Thobela, Bungu, Willie Toweel, Tuli and Matalala.
Fighters such as Nhlapo, Mokone, Mgxaji and Morodi were denied fighting for world honours because of government policies during their time but experts who saw them had no doubts that they would have done well against the best in their divisions.